Advances in brain research show that children are born learning, and that their first three years of life in particular are important indicators for the success they can have later in school and in life. Early experiences that are language-rich and nurturing promote healthy brain development. So finding a high-quality early learning setting is essential for parents who work and seek child care.
Once you’ve found a quality setting—from a center-based program to home child care to a relative’s house—here’s some advice from Start Early (formerly known as the Ounce) and Educare Chicago experts on how you can prepare your infant or toddler for her new environment.
- Visit the Child Care Center
To help your child get to know the new environment, visit the child care center with your child before the first day. You and your child can meet the caregiver and the other children. Take photos of the route to the center, the center entrance and the room where your child will spend the day. You can assemble the photos as a book, which you can use to talk to your child at home about what their day will be like and where he will go.
- Talk to Your Child
To help prepare your young child to go to out-of-home care, explain using language and concepts he will understand where he’ll be going and what he’ll be doing. Talk about how he will meet new children and participate in fun activities. Always mention that you’ll be back at the end of the day to take him home.
- Build a Relationship With the Caregiver
Your young child may not be able to talk, but she can observe your actions. She’ll form her opinion of the caregiver based on your reactions. Make time each day to talk to the caregiver and begin building a strong relationship. Caregivers at quality early learning programs see parents as partners and will want to develop a strong relationship with you, your child’s first and most important teacher.
- Share Information About Your Child
Talk to the caregiver about your child’s cues, likes, dislikes and temperament. How does she like to be fed, soothed and put to sleep? Your tips will help the caregiver know how to best care for your child without having to guess which methods to try. You can also explain what developmental skills you’d like your child to learn. Ask for daily updates about your child’s progress from the caregiver.
- Create a Morning Routine
Routines help children feel in control of their surroundings, which eases anxiety. Create a morning routine so your child knows what to expect before going to the child care center. Find out if the center provides breakfast so you know whether or not your child needs to eat at home.
- Develop a Goodbye Ritual
Create a goodbye ritual so that your infant or toddler starts to feel comfortable with her caregiver when you leave. Your ritual could involve feeding your child, changing a diaper or interacting together with a toy before you leave. Whatever activity you choose, make sure you take time to talk to your baby about what’s happening and don’t rush the process. Once your child becomes used to the goodbye ritual, she’ll be better able to regulate her emotions so that she can calm herself more easily when you go. Learn more about separation anxiety.
- Bring a Transitional Object
Your child may feel more at ease in a new environment with an object that reminds him or her of home. This could be a photo of your family that’s laminated or a stuffed animal that your child enjoys. The child can hold the object during the day as a reminder that this new environment is temporary and that you will come back to take him or her home.
- Ask What You Can Do at Home
To extend your child’s learning, ask the caregiver what skills the children will be working on during the day and what related activities you can do at home. The reverse is also true: share information about what activities you are doing at home that your child is interested in and ask if the teacher can do something similar in class.
- Complete Any Medical Requirements
Find out from the school or center what doctor or dentist appointments must be completed or scheduled before the first day.
- Bring a Change of Clothes
It’s a good idea to bring a change of clothes for your child in case he or she encounters any water, finger paint, etc. Also ask the center if you need to bring diapers or formula for your child.
- Share Your Contact Information
Let the caregiver know if it’s best to reach you by phone or email and share that contact information.